“The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition” by Debra Scoggins Ballentine

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition by Debra Scoggins Ballentine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 292 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition.

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition traces conflict myth as an ideological tool for legitimization, or de-legitimization, of political entities throughout ancient West Asia. An assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Religion, Debra Scoggins Ballentine specializes in Hebrew bible and ancient Near Eastern religions.

Chapter One of The Conflict Myth introduces Ballentine’s approach to myth theory and her purpose, namely “to identify how mythological themes are used in various sorts of contexts, regardless of how scholars classify those contexts” (12). Specifically she focuses on the mythological conflict topos and “its place with respect to ideology” (13). Chapter Two introduces and analyzes the conflict topos within four extant narratives, Anzu, Enuma Elilsh, Aššur Version of Enuma Elish, and the Balu Cycle. Each summary and analysis of extant narrative draws out and focuses upon the ideological implications, especially royal ideology. Ballentine demonstrates that each narrative, though with differing divine taxonomies, utilizes the conflict topos to legitimate kings and royalty, while also de-legitimizing other deities. In effect the myth narratives “promote particular cosmic and earthy locations and royal individuals” (71). Having established the ideological nature of the conflict topos, chapter three analyzes “shorter forms of the motif in epitomes, allusions, and imagery” (72) from sources between the 18th and 6th centuries BCE. Ballentine is careful to display the unique status of various utilizations of the conflict myth through every example. Chapter four continues by noting the various adaptations of the conflict myth through innovative legitimization within eschatological frameworks, drawing on literature of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, 1st and 2nd century Pseudepigrapha, and Rabbinic literature. Chapter five explores the secondary application of conflict myth to Gamaliel, Jesus, and Antiochus IV in regard to the notion of control over the sea. The final chapter (Chapter 5) importantly argues that “Chaos” “is not an accurate characterization of the various enemies featured across the articulations of the ancient West Asian conflict topos” (186) and re-states her primary points, especially drawing out the uniqueness of each application of the conflict myth for each particular ideological intention and political environment.

Overall, Ballentine’s goal is clearly accomplished. Without a doubt she demonstrates how the conflict myth is a common theme throughout ancient West Asian culture and how cultures have, throughout centuries, utilized the myth conflict to legitimize certain ideologies. Furthermore, she elucidates how the biblical tradition is not merely a “copy” of ancient West Asian conflict myth; rather, it is utilization of a common theme by which political power could be legitimatized, either by conflict myth of the past or eschatological innovations of conflict myth in the future. Such an accomplishment is one of the strongest elements of her work, especially because it offers a different understanding to the appropriation of characters like “Tiamat, Yammu, Môtu, and Lōtanu/Leviathan as “agents of chaos” or “chaos embodied”” (196). Additionally, her approach offers answers to questions about texts, such as her suggestion that “Rabbinic combat traditions may be responding to the types of claims made about secondary divine figures… propagated in late antique Christos-centered ideologies” (170), ideologies cleaved to by early Christianity for their theological benefit to Christian theologies. Such explanation for certain factors within biblical literature is present throughout her work. Finally, she is able to demonstrate the unique status of the biblical application of the conflict motif without wrongly pushing for its total autonomy from ancient West Asian themes or its total dependence upon ancient West Asian themes.

One major weakness of her work, although it does not take away from the validity of her conclusions, is her use of the Balu Cycle. As she presents the Balu Cycle and compared it to Anzu and Enuma Elish, the Balu Cycle is far more complex in regard to how it represents conflict and therein the characters involved. Although a conflict myth is present, the complexities suggest that the conflict myth within the Balu Cycle is similar to Anzu and Enuma Elish but not the same approach to conflict myth. Such complexities are present in the Hebrew Bible and the conflict myth in the Hebrew Bible operates within a time period in which Judeans are under the control of another nation, or “deity”, indicating that some nuances of the conflict myth remain unexplored. The necessity for one deity to approve another, as in the Balu Cycle, suggests a very unique political environment, one in which ancient Judeans consistently lived. Hence, further divisions of the types of conflict myth, beyond primary and secondary application, would have bolstered her overall arguments. Specifically, developing more textually based relationships between the various sources would support her argument even more, answering the reason conflict myth in the Balu Cycle and Anzu/Enuma Elish can be considered the same ideological tool of conflict myth.

Aside from how she used the Balu Cycle and her lack of nuances about types of conflict myth, especially as they relate to ideological legitimization, her work is excellent in its presentation of the conflict myth and biblical innovations of it. Wide coverage of literature, from Ugaritic works to Rabbinic works, and thorough analysis of each occur of the conflict motif mark her work as on to be remembered for future discussion. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition provides a unique approach to conflict myth, and especially the Hebrew Bible, that may be utilized by scholars to develop a deeper and fuller understanding of biblical myth and the conflict myth.

“Hidden Riches” by Christopher B. Hays

Hays, Christopher B. Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

 

Christopher Hays (Fuller Theological Seminary) provides a succinct and clear introduction and sourcebook for comparative studies of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature. Having found its origins in his work as a master’s student at Princeton Theological Seminary in a class about direct engagement with primary texts, he works to elucidate and make alive the world of the Hebrew Bible.

Part one provides a helpful introduction to both his work and the history of comparative studies. Chapter one explores how, poetically put, he hopes that people learn to breathe oxygen of the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, resulting in a clearer and sharper image of the Hebrew Scriptures (4). Of course, his analysis is not intended to be “liberal”, “secular”, “evangelical”, or “conservative”; rather, it is intended to discuss the academic issues in a manner honest to scholarship and also provide discussion questions which may further one’s own studies. Furthermore, Hays provides, and does not assume, critical issues surrounding the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, a point that permits one to fully grasp his analysis from any level. At last, he provides primary texts with authoritative translations, and an up-to-date bibliography by which one may study certain topics further.

Chapter two explores the history of comparative studies and surrounding issues. Namely it covers the earliest discoveries of “Orientalists” in from the European colonialism of the 17th century to the decipherments of Ugaritic and Akkadian in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following, Hays summarizes the methodological approaches of various scholars as they regarded the uniqueness of the Bible. Based off the work of William W. Hallo, he argues for comparative studies as from a contrastive approach that decenters “the Bible in order to grasp the way it takes part in a much larger cultural matrix” (36). In effect, Hays notes that one may know the biblical text for the first time (37).

The next four sections of the book, the remaining chapters, cover the Pentateuch, former prophets, latter prophets, and writings. Within each section are certain pieces of literature for comparison. For example, in chapter seven, Hays compares the Laws of Hammurabi and the Covenant Code. While more texts are available through the world, he only selects one or two texts and provides a bibliography for further study and more primary texts. Each selection is complete with a Bible reading and at least one primary source reading. Following each primary source, Hays discusses the critical issues surrounding the texts and illustrates how certain ancient Near Eastern literature elucidates elements within the Bible. In his comparative analysis’ he presents the full views of subjects without adhering to any point of certainty. In essence he does well to compare the texts without asserting biblical superiority, an easy possibility for confessional scholars.

While each chapter was effective in their presentation of the text and historical critical issues, there were a few points where potentially valuable information was lost. First, in Enuma Elish, Table VII, Hays excludes many of the fifty names for Marduk. For an undergraduate or masters student seeking to understand such a portion of text, it creates an inconvenience by which one must seek another translation. While his exclusion of Anshar’s sending Ea and Anu to defeat Tiamat or the repetition of Tiamat’s preparation is reasonable, exclusion of Marduk’s fifty names leave out a treasure trove of data regarding how people viewed their highest deity.

Also, aside from the chapter divisions by genre type, there is no further systematization to help one retain concepts found throughout the literature and analysis presented. In essence, Hays operates differently from John Walton (2006) who provides his own analysis of the ancient Near East, the cognitive environment, and categories for understanding. For the undergraduate reader, Hays work alone is inadequate in that while his comparative analysis is fantastic, there is not enough detail to help the reader organize information to retain. With this work, one should be accompanied by something like Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.

Beyond these two critiques, Hidden Riches was a joy to read for the neutrality. Again in contrast to Walton, Hays writes for a less conservative audience and provides one with the primary resources and guidance, the discussion questions, to consider the information independently. Though dense at some moments, Hays makes clear the various text critical issues, not assuming one already knows the issues. Additionally, he, as determined by his methodology, maintains respect of both the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient texts. Theological assertions about the Hebrew Scriptures are rare and, if present, only utilized as a comparison of Hebrew religions and ancient Near Eastern religions.

 

In sum, Christopher Hays’ exquisite work opens the literature of the ancient Near East to graduate and undergraduates alike. Although he doesn’t directly provide categories to help illustrate the cognitive environment, the nature of his methodology for comparative studies allows one to finish reading his work with a sense of the ancient genres within which the Hebrew Scriptures are located. As a result of reading Hays work one begins to be able to grasp the cultural matrix and complex dynamics between ancient Israel and its neighboring groups.